NASL TV: A Short History

The NASL on TVS in 1978Here is a short history of the original North American Soccer League on television, with as much ratings information as I have been able to dig up, and links to as many games as I can find. (As you’ll notice in the list of season schedules, we have at least highlights, if not complete games, of many telecasts from the TVS/ABC era.) I’m constantly on the lookout for any hard numbers relating to NASL broadcasts on ABC or anywhere else, and links to videos or DVDs of games, so if you have any, contact me.

CBS Starts the Ball Rolling

CBS was the television home of the National Professional Soccer League in its first season of 1967, with Jack Whitaker and Danny Blanchflower behind the mics on Sundays. The network’s marketing slogan was “Just for Kicks!” but it could have been “Just for Commercials!” as referees were instructed to call fouls and delay play to allow CBS to insert commercials into the action. An Associated Press story on Oct. 8, 1967 said ratings for the broadcasts were “generally higher than expected” and that CBS “will probably renew the contract.” (They did – which was to bring the league between $500,000 and $1,000,000 in revenue, depending on the source.) Another story from May 1968 notes the ratings for 1967 averaged a 4.3.

1967 NPSL on CBS Schedule
Sunday4/16/1967Atlanta at Baltimore2:30 p.m.Bays win 1-0 in debut for both teams
Sunday4/23/1967California at St. Louis2 p.m.20,985 see Eric Hahn score twice, 2-1 Stars
Sunday4/30/1967New York at Philadelphia2:30 p.m.Spartans win, 2-0
Sunday5/7/1967Chicago at St. Louis2:30 p.m.Stars win 2-1 again on TV
Sunday5/14/1967Pittsburgh at Toronto2:30 p.m.Phantoms win on road, 2-1.
Sunday5/21/1967Atlanta at New York2:30 p.m.Julio Ash scores twice for NYG in 2-2 draw.
Sunday5/28/1967Philadelphia at Toronto2:30 p.m.Hat trick by Tibor Szalay in 7-2 Philly rout.
Sunday6/4/1967Baltimore at Philadelphia2:30 p.m.Scoreless draw was surely a delight to watch.
Sunday6/11/1967St. Louis at Philadelphia2:30 p.m.Spartans play second straight scoreless draw on TV.
Sunday6/18/1967Los Angeles at St. Louis2:30 p.m.Toros win 1-0 in first TV appearance.
Sunday6/25/1967Chicago at Philadelphia2:30 p.m.Ernie Winchester brace gives Spurs 2-0 win
Sunday7/2/1967Los Angeles at Atlanta2 p.m.1-1 draw
Sunday7/9/1967Chicago at New York2 p.m.Spurs win 3-2 on road
Sunday7/16/1967St. Louis at Pittsburgh2:30 p.m.Rudolph Kolbl‘s goal for Pittsburgh the only tally
Sunday7/23/1967Chicago at Baltimore2:30 p.m.Dennis Violett scores for Bays in 2-1 win
Sunday7/30/1967Atlanta at Philadelphia2:30 p.m.Just 4,236 attend 1-1 draw
Sunday8/6/1967Toronto at Oakland3:30 p.m.Ilija Mitic scores both for renamed Clippers
Sunday8/13/1967St. Louis at Baltimore2:30 p.m.Bays win 3-1
Sunday8/20/1967Baltimore at Atlanta2:30 p.m.Scoreless draw clinches East title for Baltimore
Sunday8/27/1967Baltimore at Pittsburgh2:30 p.m.Phantoms win 3-2 but only 892 attend
Sunday9/3/1967Oakland at Baltimore2 p.m.Championship 1st Leg (BAL 1-0)
Saturday9/9/1967Baltimore at Oakland3:30 p.m.Championship 2nd Leg (OAK 4-1)

In 1968, Mario Machado1Bonus points if you remember his cameo in Robocop. replaced Blanchflower (who was deemed to be a little too frank in his assessment of the quality of play) on CBS’ telecasts of the newly renamed North American Soccer League. Machado may have been a little too enthusiastic, as he proclaimed prior to the season that “There’s an American soccer revolution going on, and in three years we will be able to field a totally American team.” The revolution was televised, with Machado and Jack Whitaker calling games, usually on Sundays. As was the case with the 1967 NPSL championship series, the weekly telecasts in 1968 were blacked out in the market of the home team.

1968 NASL on CBS Schedule
Sat4/27/1968St. Louis at Kansas City3 p.m. Spurs win 4-0 behind two Ernie Winchester goals.
Sat5/4/1968Cleveland at Baltimore2 p.m. Stokers win 2-1, Baltimore drops to 0-5-1.
Sun5/12/1968New York at Toronto3 p.m.Despite Dieter Perau’s brace, Falcons win 3-2.
Sun5/19/1968Chicago at Toronto3 p.m.Peter Sulincevski’s 67th-minute header brings Chicago 1-1 draw.
Sun5/26/1968Oakland at Dallas2:30 p.m.Clips struggle to 1-1 draw with winless Tornado.
Sun6/2/1968Oakland at St. Louis2:30 p.m. Stars win 2-1 with Norb Pregeba brace.
Sun6/9/1968Man City at Oakland3 p.m.First US league match on international TV. Clips 3-0 for 25,237.
Sun6/16/1968Washington at Baltimore3 p.m.Game featured 56 shots but just one goal, by Whips.
Sun6/23/1968San Diego at Detroit2 p.m.San Diego 2-1. Detroit gave away 10,000 tickets to get crowd of 11,097.
Sun6/30/1968Santos FC at St. Louis3 p.m.Pele scores game-winner (3-2) in front of 20,116.
Sun7/7/1968Oakland at Kansas City2 p.m.Eric Barber goal and assist for Spurs, who won 3-1 for 9,382 fans.
Sun7/14/1968Santos FC at Washington3 p.m.Pepe (not Pele) scores twice in 3-1 Santos win in front of 20,189.
Sun7/21/1968St. Louis at San Diego3 p.m.Toros win 1-0 in front of season-high crowd (13,447).
Sun7/28/1968Washington at New York3 p.m.Only 3,244 see 4-3 thriller won by Generals.
Sun8/4/1968San Diego at Kansas City3 p.m. Spurs win 2-1 in Western Conference leadership clash.
Sun8/11/1968Dallas at St. Louis1 p.m. Stars drub Dallas 5-2.
Sun8/18/1968Boston at Baltimore3 p.m.Loanee Wilf Tranter scores game-winner in 2-1 Bays victory.
Sun8/25/1968New York at Detroit3 p.m.Cougars demote Generals, 5-0.
Sun9/1/1968Detroit at New York3 p.m. Generals win 4-1 in undercard of Benfica-Santos.
Sat9/14/1968Cleveland at Atlanta2 p.m.Kaizer Moutang scores in OT to lift Chiefs into finals, 2-1.
Sat9/21/1968Atlanta at San Diego4 p.m.First leg of finals ends 0-0.
Sat9/28/1968San Diego at Atlanta4 p.m. Chiefs win NASL title with 3-0 rout of Toros.

Frank Glieber and Ben WrightCBS got back into the game by televising Pele’s debut with the New York Cosmos in an exhibition on June 15, 1975 with Frank Gleiber and Ben Wright on the telecast from Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York. An audience of some 10 million people saw the Black Pearl score a goal and add an assist in a 2-2 draw. Well, to be honest, they didn’t see either play live – CBS was in commercial for the assist and in a replay for the goal. CBS also carried another Cosmos match and Soccer Bowl ’75, won by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 2-0 over the Portland Timbers at San Jose.

Mario Machado interviews Derek SmethurstWhat was supposed to be a new three-year contract with the NASL started off with the June 6, 1976 game between the Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Coming just over two weeks after the contract itself was announced, the game drew an audience of some 3.3 million households. (At right, CBS’ Machado interviews Tampa Bay’s Derek Smethurst, photo from Ian Morris’ excellent Rowdies history blog.) CBS also showed Soccer Bowl ’76 and was to broadcast six games in 1977 and “at least” nine in 1978. The second and third years of the “contract” never materialized.

TVS Tunes In 1977-78

NASL TVS announcers Jon Miller and Paul GardnerTVS was an ad-hoc network of stations that carried syndicated sports programming (perhaps their biggest coup was carrying the University of Houston’s upset of UCLA in basketball in 1968), and they latched onto the NASL for the 1977 and 1978 seasons. TVS carried seven games, including the Soccer Bowl, in 1977. TVS’ main NASL announcer (along with analyst Paul Gardner) was Jon Miller, who would go on to have a great career as a baseball broadcaster. (Truth be told, he was not a great soccer broadcaster.)

Unfortunately for the NASL, many stations in big markets didn’t carry the TVS games, and some that did shunted them off to 11:30 pm on Monday nights, well after they had been played. A reasonably consistent, live, major network television package would elude the NASL for another year.

1977 NASL on TVS Schedule
Sunday5/29/1977New York Cosmos at Tampa Bay Rowdies1:30 p.m.Franz Beckenbauer’s debut
Sunday6/19/1977Los Angeles Aztecs at Minnesota Kicks2 p.m.
Sunday7/10/1977New York Cosmos at Seattle Sounders3 p.m.
Sunday7/24/1977Chicago Sting at San Jose Earthquakes3 p.m.
Sunday8/14/1977Seattle Sounders at Minnesota Kicks2 p.m.Playoffs
Sunday8/21/1977New York Cosmos at Rochester Lancers3 p.m.Playoffs
Sunday8/28/1977New York Cosmos vs. Seattle Sounders4 p.m.Soccer Bowl ’77
1978 NASL on TVS Schedule
Sunday4/16/1978Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Washington Diplomats2 p.m. 
Sunday6/11/1978Dallas Tornado at Detroit Express3 p.m.
Sunday7/9/1978Los Angeles Aztecs at San Jose Earthquakes4 p.m.
Saturday7/22/1978New York Cosmos at Seattle Sounders4 p.m.
Sunday8/13/1978Detroit Express at Ft. Lauderdale Strikers4 p.m.Playoffs
Sunday8/20/1978Tampa Bay Rowdies at Ft. Lauderdale Strikers3 p.m.Playoffs
Sunday8/27/1978New York Cosmos vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies4 p.m.Soccer Bowl ’78

The post-Pele boom must have convinced someone that soccer was the new hot thing, because the NASL took a quantum (yet short-lived) leap after the 1978 season.

The ABC Years 1979-81

Jim McKay and Paul GardnerIn 1979, the NASL landed a contract (reportedly for $1.8 million over two years) with ABC that called for nine telecasts of league games, including the playoffs and Soccer Bowl. Below is a list of the games that ABC carried in 1979 and 1980, with play-by-play announcer Jim McKay and the by-then-ubiquitous Paul Gardner.

The ratings were far below what ABC expected out of the “Sport of the 80’s,” and they (largely) bailed out of the contract after carrying several games in 1980.

I have been able to find some information on NASL ratings:

  • A comment from former ABC Sports executive Jim Spence in the film “Once in a Lifetime,” who notes that ABC averaged a 2.7 rating for its telecasts in 1979, “representing about 2 million homes.”
  • An article in the July 15, 1980 New York Times says the 1980 games averaged a 2.6 rating (the same as 1979) and a 10 share (up from a 9 share in 1979). It also mentions that 1980’s first telecast did a 2.1 rating, while a Cosmos-Washington Diplomats game on June 1 did a 3.1.
  • The December 1, 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated noted that ratings for the six ABC games in 1980 averaged a “dismal” 2.6.

Major League Soccer would love to have those numbers today, as they struggle to get a million households to watch their championship game, MLS Cup.

1979 NASL on ABC Schedule
Saturday5/12/1979New York Cosmos at Tampa Bay Rowdies3 p.m.
Sunday6/10/1979Vancouver Whitecaps at Minnesota Kicks1:30 p.m.
Sunday6/24/1979New England Tea Men at New York Cosmos2:30 p.m.
Saturday7/7/1979Chicago Sting at Detroit Express3 p.m.
Sunday7/29/1979Los Angeles Aztecs at Washington Diplomats2:30 p.m.
Saturday8/18/1979Chicago Sting at Ft.Lauderdale Strikers2 p.m.Playoffs
Saturday8/25/1979Philadelphia Fury at Tampa Bay Rowdies12 p.m.Playoffs
Saturday9/1/1979Vancouver Whitecaps at New York Cosmos2 p.m.Playoffs
Saturday9/8/1979Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies2 p.m.Soccer Bowl ’79


1980 NASL on ABC Schedule
Saturday5/17/1980Vancouver Whitecaps at Tampa Bay Rowdies2 p.m.
Sunday5/25/1980Detroit Express at Minnesota Kicks2 p.m.
Sunday6/1/1980New York Cosmos at Washington Diplomats2 p.m.
Sunday6/8/1980Tampa Bay Rowdies at Ft. Lauderdale Strikers2 p.m.
Sunday6/22/1980Los Angeles Aztecs at Toronto Blizzard3:30 p.m.
Sunday6/29/1980New York Cosmos at Vancouver Whitecaps3:30 p.m. 
Saturday8/30/1980San Diego Sockers at Chicago Sting2 p.m.Playoffs
Sunday9/21/1980New York Cosmos vs. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers12:30 p.m.Soccer Bowl ’80

The Soccer Bowl showed up on ABC in 1981 (though it was tape-delayed until late that night in Chicago in favor of a Love Boat re-run, and wasn’t seen in New York until the next day), but that was the last gasp for the league on ABC.

Starting in 1981, the NASL did manage to get some games on a new cable sports network that had begun in 1979 called ESPN, as well as the new USA Network2The first USA Network broadcast was of a Tulsa-Tampa Bay match on March 28, 1981 – a game 15-year-old me attended.. It was too little, too late, however, as the forces were already well in motion that would lead to the demise of the league. (If anyone has any schedules of or links to videos of the NASL games on either ESPN or USA Network, drop a comment below.)

Final NASL telecast everThe final NASL game ever played was also its last one ever telecast. On October 3, 1984, the Chicago Sting won the NASL title by defeating the Toronto Blizzard 3-2 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. A crowd of 16,821 saw the game in person, while back in Chicago, they watched on SportsVision, a new pay-per-view channel. Unfortunately, it was far from the biggest sports story in Chicago that day: the Chicago Cubs beat the San Diego Padres that afternoon in the second game of the National League Championship Series. The Sting’s victory ended up on Page 7 of the sports section in the next day’s Chicago Tribune.

The assistance of Dave Litterer‘s former American Soccer History Archives (now online at the Society for American Soccer History) and Dave Wasser‘s collection of historic soccer videotapes is gratefully acknowledged.